A group of influential Internet executives and top government regulators are calling for a stepped-up effort to teach K-12 school children how to use the Internet.
"The one area where we haven't done very well is making sure that schools have telecom and Internet access," said Robert Pepper, chief of the office of plans and policy at the Federal Communications Commission.
"The inventory clerk at Wal-Mart has more infotech in his or her hands than the average teacher," Pepper said.
Part of the money for the effort to educate the nation's youth is likely to come from an Internet universal service fund run by the Federal Communications Commission. The 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act directed the FCC to develop this new fund because the agency oversees the telecommunications and Internet business, which will be instrumental in building any wired education system.
The FCC wants to promote Internet access - not just cheap phone service - and is now working with states across the country to make sure schools are connected, Pepper said.
That fund would total about $2.25 billion annually, said Pepper. "This is not government regulation of the Net .... It is government stimulation," said Pepper.
The FCC plans to publish its proposed rules on the issue by early May, Pepper said at a March 12 conference called Digital Dilemmas: Defining Ethics in the Internet Age, held at Marymount University, Arlington, Va.
At the session, regulators and industry representatives agreed that rules governing the business of the Internet should be avoided as much as possible, but that government might need to jump-start the education effort.
However, officials at the FCC are still trying to work out how the money should be collected and how it should be distributed among programs intended to aid education, as well as people living in poor or rural areas.
Most companies, such as Washington-based MCI Communications Corp., oppose the fund-raising effort, dubbed universal service, fearing that it will slow their growth or give an advantage to their rivals, such as the regional Baby Bells.
Under the existing regime, which the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act ordered to be supplanted by the emerging FCC-developed plan, the long distance companies charge their customers extra money to pay for infrastructure investments by the Baby Bells.
Unsurprisingly, communications, hardware and content companies differ on how the universal service money should be collected and spent, with each company favoring a plan that benefits it.
These conflicts are reflected on Capitol Hill, where prominent political and industry players have weighed in with their preferred plans.
A group of senators from rural states recently sent a letter to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt demanding that rural Americans be guaranteed cheap and reliable communications service, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate commerce committee, recently held a hearing to emphasize his opposition to regulation.
These conflicting desires were reflected by Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., the chairman of the House commerce committee, who told the meeting that the Internet should have as little regulation as possible, adding that "we have an obligation to keep access fees as low as possible."
Among industry, even those companies that stand to gain from the education program are leery. "I don't believe in a technology welfare system," said Heidi Heiden, senior vice president of Fairfax, Va.-based UUNet Technologies Inc. Many technology company executives, in fact, don't think private companies should have to pay for any education system.
William Melton, CEO of CyberCash, Reston, Va., advised people to stop worrying so much about lack of bandwidth and other technological constraints. "The most important thing as far as I'm concerned is transforming our education system .... If we don't turn it around we'll be in trouble," said Melton. Although he did not say specifically if he supported the fund, Melton said school children must have Internet access.
Melton argues that, like television, if people know what Internet access is and want it badly enough, they will find a way to get it. "If we really educate our people they'll figure out how to get it. Our people are smart," said Melton. He also asked parents to get involved with the Internet to learn what their kids are doing and to encourage their learning.
Don Heath, president of the Internet Society in Reston, Va., said contrary to popular opinion of Internet business people who want the government to be totally hands-off, he thinks the FCC should be a player as the Internet business moves forward.
"I happen to believe the FCC should be involved," said Heath. That way, he said, the agency knows what's going on and will be less likely to want to control the whole thing. n